In Defense of Twentydollar Words

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“Persuasion—the highest form of persuasion at any rate—cannot be achieved without a sense of beauty.”

When I was boy, I was confronted on several occasions with Mssrs. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. It revealed to me many valuable points, indeed, a whole theory of writing, most of which I have since forgotten, or, more often, ignored on purpose.
Still, I have, in certain situations, often turned to this “little book” for stylistic guidance. One principle, for no particular reason, rises up in my memory: “Use Anglo-Saxon words when possible.” The reasoning behind this order, as I understood it, ran something like this:

Anglo-Saxon, according to the little book, was more efficient in expressive force. Romanesque words were, presumably, not. The examples used by way of contrast were the words “gut” and “intestine.” “Gut” was to be preferred, since it, being Ango-Saxon, was “livelier.” Perhaps there is something to the case. Style, like politics, is the art of the possible. I recall, however, that Shakespeare uses the word (perhaps merely to fill out a line) in the following passage:

No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood;
No more shall trenching war channel her fields,
Nor bruise her flowerets with the armed hoofs
Of hostile paces: those opposed eyes,
Which, like the meteors of a troubled heaven,
All of one nature, of one substance bred,
Did lately meet in the intestine shock
And furious close of civil butchery,
Shall now, in mutual well-beseeming ranks,
March all one way, and be no more oppos’d
Against acquaintance, kindred, and allies:
The edge of war, like an ill-sheathed knife,
No more shall cut his master.

Shakespeare was writing verse, rather than an essay, but even if it were one, I’m not convinced that a ten-cent word would do. He writes in iambs, but the phrase “intestine shock” aligned with “civil butchery” affects me first because of its strength as an image, and not because I recognize how neatly Shakespeare has met the demands of meter. Shakespeare thinks of his country in civil war, and his image is of a man accidentally gutting himself. Besides, what better represents the tangled confusion and disgust of civil war than an intestine? “Gut” fails to satisfy.

I am sure the principles of Strunk and White have encouraged among their readers the Rooseveltian frontier virtues of self-reliance, integrity, and economy. We are no longer, the little book seems to say, in an era of baroque eclogues or epics, when the over-abundant energy of their material encouraged writers to err on the side of prodigality. Our literary household, the book continues, is desperately short of supplies, and we must conserve what we have.

But, frankly, I’m not sure of the teaching: “Do not be tempted by a twentydollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.” (Another maxim proposed by the little book.) What, given the rate of inflation, is the price of the phrase “twentydollar word”?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for making every word “tell.” But does the ten-cent word always tell the truth? At the very apogee of literature, the author is not restrained by fear, but is the master of both rare and common words. Of course, students must learn discipline. Yet we often find accomplished writers reveling in complicated and exalted language.

My own conclusion is that there is no price or restraint attached to words beyond the possession of good taste. What is tasteless is not what is cheap or expensive, but what is inappropriate. The truly vital thing is that the purchaser know what he is investing in and is able to use it properly. I’m not suggesting that the authors of the little book would suggest otherwise. When they gave principles, they supplied the context in which those principles could be applied. That said, people are often pressed for time. They’re apt to take the principles and leave the context for the slow, or those who have their heads in the clouds.

Many say our society lacks rough and manly virtue. This is correct. It is therefore a paradox that few writers seem tempted toward frilly language. Our vice seems to be rather the opposite. If people should be cautious, but not cowardly, they must have some vital spirit that requires tempering; if they naturally demur, they must be roused. We forget that the virtues of chivalry and gentility, which are truly desirable, can only be achieved by the civilization of a heady, not to say brutal energy. Newman’s Definition of a Gentleman is a good one, but only if “the effeminacy of feeling that attends upon civilization” is an amendment of manly strength and candor. So, too, it is with writing.

Jane Austen, like Saint John Henry Newman, seems to have attained to the happy medium he describes. Aunts aren’t gentlemen, but Austen was as close as a lady can get to being one. She is sensitive, delicate, and reverent at the same time as she is forthright, determined, and critical. Such a happy marriage, like the marriage of the sexes, is only perfect if there is real femininity and real masculinity. Both Austen and Newman rise elegantly above the innate vices of their sexes.

This is a difficult goal to reach. Style is more than decoration: it is a moral action. We might dub the style of writing described by Strunk and White as a “Strenuous Style,” to adapt a tag of Teddy Roosevelt’s. This style of writing is noted for clarity, economy, and integrity. It is Spartan. It regards language as something to be made useful by the writer to others, the readers. According to its dogma, literary truth is to be dehydrated, neatly wrapped, and communicated to another. If some richness of texture or scent is missed, no matter. The basic vitamins and nutrients are there. In such a style there can be rowdiness and virility. It will purchase all the admiration that manly restraint deserves. But seldom will it be charming. In a world full of such writers, all well trained to order their words like little tin soldiers, all conversation will be direct, substantial, and informative. But as Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son:

People know very little of the world, and talk nonsense, when they talk of plainness and solidity unadorned, they will do in nothing; mankind has been long out of a state of nature, and the golden age of native simplicity will never return. Whether for the better or the worse, no matter; but we are refined; and plain manners, plain dress, and plain diction would as little do in life, as acorns, herbage, and the water of the neighboring spring, would do at table.

It is an excellent—and very American—thing to be able to leave the restrictions of society, go out into the hinterland, and survive the restrictions of bare necessity. Our proper hero is the cowboy, and the poets who considered themselves proper Americans were people like William Carlos Williams. Pollock was a very American painter. But we should not always live in the desert. The virtues of the cowboy are basic; they aren’t the highest or the most refined.

In other words, the strong writer must learn to adorn his integrity befittingly. But the merely ornamental writer must look deeper than his wardrobe.

Doctor Johnson may have said that Lord Chesterfield’s letters “teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master,” but Johnson wasn’t above a bit of ornament himself. He did not, because of his disgust for Chesterfield, become a proto-Hemingway. Johnson, like Austen and Newman, avoided vicious floridity by balancing plain speech with ornament, and vice versa.

There have been other writers, however, who are worth reading because their plainess is ornamental. They escape these contrarities by embodying both at once, rather than aiming at a mean.

Robert Burns and Joel Chandler Harris are two such writers. The original text of The Wonderful Tar Baby Story is the perfect confluence of style and subject. Nearly every one of these words is so outrageous that I cannot tell whether they are worth merely ten or twenty dollars. I rate them rather higher.

One day atter Brer Rabbit fool ‘im wid dat calamus root, Brer Fox ent ter wuk en got ‘im some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun w’at he call a Tar-Baby, en he tuck dish yer Tar-Baby en he sot ‘er in de big road, en den he lay off in de bushes fer to see what de news wuz gwine ter be. En he didn’t hatter wait long, nudder, kaze bimeby here come Brer Rabbit pacin’ down de road—lippity-clippity, clippity-lippity—dez ez sassy ez a jay-bird. Brer Fox, he lay low. Brer Rabbit come prancin’ ‘long twel he spy de Tar-Baby, en den he fotch up on his behime legs like he wuz ‘stonished. De Tar Baby, she sot dar, she did, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

But how long before Uncle Remus is bundled into the Procrustean bed of the ten-dollar word? Let us now review the standardized version.

One day, after Brother Rabbit had fooled him, using the root of acorus calamus, Brother Fox went to work, got himself some tar, mixed it with some turpentine, and made a contraption. He called it “a Tar Baby.” He took the “Tar Baby,” and placed it in the big road. Then he lay down, off in the bushes, in order to see what would happen. Neither did he wait very long, because, by and by, there came Brother Rabbit pacing down the road — lippity— clippity, clippity— lippity— as impudent as a cyanocitta cristata.

It would be impossible, thank God, to do this with Burns and still keep anything like the sense of the words:

Let other poets raise a fracas
‘Bout vines, an’ wines, an’ drucken Bacchus,
An’ crabbit names an’ stories wrack us,
An’ grate our lug:
I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us,
In glass or jug.

The original passages accurately reflect not only the spoken word, but peculiar characters and circumstances of the men who speak them. But if we were to ask ourselves why these words, or the words of Shakespeare, have retained their power, we might find less talk of ten-dollar words, and more of appropriateness, perspicuity, accuracy, and persuasion. The difficulty with these ideas is that they are not ideological, but prudential. They require that men use reason instead of rules. If they are general, they are also wise for the same reason. When we say “be accurate” or “be persuasive,” we are not arbitrarily assigning certain classes of words to the tumbril and guillotine.

Nothing I have said here is original, or even beyond the declarations of common sense. But when we lack awareness of what is common, it is often difficult to understand what is particular and complex. Let us recall fundamentals, but let us not forget their ends.

Image: James Boswell talking to Samuel Johnson ’till near two in the morning by Thomas Rowlandson

Michael Yost

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Michael Yost has a wide variety of interests, most of which may be pursued either in the garden or in his library. He's a recent convert from Anglicanism and a member of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter. When hounded, he goes to earth in the depths of rural New Hampshire, where he and his wife are raising their infant son.

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